Startup Nation

The Best Gadgets at CES’s Eureka Park: Mind-Reading Software and More

Software that reads your mind? Winston Ross reports from CES.

Joe Klamar/AFP/Getty

LAS VEGAS, Nevada—Remember that Dave Chappelle skit, the one where he imagines what it’d be like if the Internet were a real place, like a shopping mall, where instead of getting spammy emails about weird sex stuff and pirating music and Paris Hilton sex tapes, there are actually creepy dudes standing outside of storefronts leading you into stores where all that stuff is right there to touch and play with?

The Consumer Electronics Show is kind of like that, except a lot more PG and a lot less hilarious. It’s the Internet in real life, at least in the sense that most of its offerings will only ever be sold on the Web, and it’s where entrepreneurs all over the world hope their app or gadget will catch fire and make someone rich.

The mainstream CES all happens at the Las Vegas Convention Center. That’s where you’ll find the next hot television and the self-driving car, the tech powerhouses like Samsung and Sony. But the real innovation happens at a few gaudy hotels away from the action, in a few ballrooms deep in the bowels of the Venetian. This is “Eureka Park,” the home of CES’s weird and wackiest new companies, of “startup nation.” The booths are cheaper, the crowds are sparse, the ideas may never roll off a conveyer belt. But it’s a way more interesting place to be than the main hallway. Consider the offerings:

The software that reads your mind. Well, not exactly your mind, but the founders of Cube26 have developed a program that will one day allow users to hold a finger up to their lips to mute their televisions. Or, when they walk into the kitchen for another piece of pumpkin pie, the program they’re watching will pause. Or, when their 5-year-old is at home channel-surfing and stumbles across some raunchy program on Cinemax, the TV will take one look at that little scamp and realize he’s too young to be watching something like that and change the channel.

The hardware can be as simple as a VGA camera embedded in whatever the device in use happens to be: a television, videogame console, whatever, and it works kind of like Xbox’s Kinect system, that highly sophisticated interface that turns the player into the controller by reading their body movements.

What the much more streamlined but scalable “vision control” company Cube26 aims to do is to wriggle its way into just about any device out there: phones, televisions, computers, made by any manufacturer. Crack open your laptop, and the facial recognition software will know it’s you and log into your Facebook account. Pass it to your husband, and you’re booted out of that account so he can be automatically logged in.

Flip on Netflix to watch a movie, and based on how frequently you smiled the last time you watched a Wes Anderson movie, Netflix will recommend some more like-minded productions. But if your wife is there, Netflix will remember that she frowned during that Wes Anderson movie and pick something that you both like.

The company’s first and only customer so far is a “big” (and top-secret) Japanese retailer that wants to install its software into cameras placed all over their stores to monitor what men, women, and children are looking at as they shuffle around.

“There are other companies in the field of vision control,” says Saurav Kumar, the company’s 23-year-old CEO. “But no company focuses on the user, as opposed to the technology.”

The reason to finally junk your BlackBerry: let’s face it, BlackBerries still exist for one reason and one reason only—people hate typing on touch-screen phones. But what if your tablet, your phone, whatever touch-screen device you mess around with, what if it was flat until you wanted it to have a tactile keyboard, a thing that rises up from the screen on demand, because it feels your fingers there, and voilà! there are bumpy keys right there, allowing the user to type up a storm.

There are plenty of companies out there monkeying around with “haptics” (the sense of touch), but Tactus Technology of Fremont, Calif., sauntered into Eureka Park this year with a free booth (!) because a panel of judges of the Consumer Electronics Association picked it as the grand-prize winner of last year’s “Eureka Park Challenge,” the organization’s entrepreneur and startup contest.

“We think this will eventually be in every touch screen,” CEO and founder Craig Ciesla told The Daily Beast. The company’s first mass-market offerings should be ready for production by the end of the year.

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The machine that will allow you to dunk your phone in the toilet. You’ve heard of waterproof cases, but what if you were walking through the mall one day and popped into a shop and inside was a weird box that kind of looks like a tanning booth for Barbie dolls filled with some kind of strange bubbling vapor/water/chemicals? Would you run right back out into the mall again screaming?

Well, maybe. But if Integrated Surface Technologies can get enough of these weird boxes into enough cellphone repair shops or maybe even Best Buys, people will realize that having their phone take a 30-minute bath in his “vapor depositor system” will completely waterproof their phones in an invisible plasma sheath—no case necessary.

Machines like this do exist today, but what’s cool about the Blue Lantern Plasma System is that it’s a scaled-down version that can do 36 smartphones at once and costs the buyer only a paltry $30,000, which means these things could wind up in shopping malls all over America and people could waterproof their phones in a half hour, as opposed to sending the phone away and waiting weeks without said phone until it gets shipped back to them.

The incredibly hard-to-explain technology that could one day change your life, or at least extend the battery life of your phone: Ever wondered why some smartphones get crummy battery life and others march around like the Energizer Bunny? The answer is ridicu-complicated, but the fast-talking Matt Kim, CEO of Tempe, Ariz.–based QuantTera, is happy to try to break it down.

His company, whose sexy motto is “Nano-engineered quantum-based solutions,” makes high-speed lasers and transistors, and it’s those transistors that beam the signals from your cellphones up to those towers up in space and then back down again. This process is exhausting for the poor phones, and more so for those phones with crummy transistors. Kim is confident he has found a better way. He’s figured out a way to redesign the transistor by making better synthetic crystals, the transistor’s building blocks. (Crystals are solid materials whose atoms, molecules, or ions are arranged in a pattern that extends in all three spatial dimensions, like diamonds and salt.) His crystals are better than the other guy’s crystals because he pumps extra nitrogen into the Gallium arsenide that makes up the crystals. The finished product is more efficient and more flexible, and once they start making their way into smartphones over the next few years, you’ll be able to yell at your boyfriend for seven hours straight, instead of a measly four.

Don’t think Kim knows what he’s talking about? He can show you, with the mini transistor test station he designed in Arizona just for CES (at a cost of $10,000), threw in the back of his sport-utility vehicle, and drove to Vegas.

“I had to be very careful,” he said, on the drive.